Wessex was one of the seven major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (the Heptarchy) that preceded the Kingdom of England. It was named after the West Saxons and situated in the south and southwest of England. It existed as a kingdom from the 6th century until the emergence of the English state in the 9th century, and as an earldom between 1016 and 1066. "Wessex" has never had any official existence since that time, but it has remained a familiar term since Thomas Hardy revived it for his West Country novels and poetry. Today some wish to see it restored as a region of England.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), Wessex was founded by Cerdic and Cynric, chieftains of a clan known as "Gewisse", although the specific events given by the ASC are considered to be suspect. Archaeological evidence points to an origin in the upper Thames and Cotswolds area, and the ASC origin myth may have been political propaganda designed to justify a later invasion of the Jutish province in southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The first certain event in Wessex is the baptism of Cynegils around the year 640.
Wessex expanded its boundaries and clashed with its neighbours, notably Celtic Dumnonia (essentially modern day Devon and Cornwall), which it eventually came to dominate, and with Mercia. After Egbert defeated Mercia in 825 and the Northumbrians accepted his overlordship in 829, Egbert became the first King of England.
The integrated system of fortified towns (the "burhs") established under Alfred the Great, described in both Asser and the ASC, and documented in a unique hidage, helped to prevent the conquest of southern England by the Danish invaders in the 870s. The hidage identifies thirty-three forts, which ensured that no one in Wessex was more than a long day's ride from a place of safety.
There is some evidence that kingship in Wessex was not rigidly hereditary. The strongest candidate from the pool of the senior families was elected or forced his control on the lesser kings. The internal feuding produced by this may have delayed the rise of Wessex as a full kingdom, but this is conjecture.
After the Mercian conquest of its original territories in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, the northern boundary of Wessex was probably the River Thames; Southwark, facing London on the south bank of the Thames, was included among the burhs, but London fell beyond West Saxon territory. Its heartland was the present-day counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, and Berkshire.
The English author Thomas Hardy used a fictionalised south-west as a setting for many of his novels, reviving the term 'Wessex' for southwest England. His Wessex included all the counties mentioned in the previous paragraph apart from Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, along with Devon. He gave the counties the following fictionalised names: Berkshire = North Wessex; Devon = Lower Wessex; Dorset = South Wessex; Hampshire = Upper Wessex; Somerset = Outer Wessex; Wiltshire = Mid-Wessex. Neighbouring Cornwall was described as Off-Wessex or Lyonesse.
There is a movement in modern day south-central England to create a regional cultural and political identity in Wessex. This consists of three distinct but interlinked organisations. The Wessex Regionalist Party is a registered political party which contests elections. The Wessex Constitutional Convention is an all-party pressure group in which those sympathetic to Wessex devolution who are not members of the Wessex Regionalist Party can also be represented. The Wessex Society is a cultural society which promotes a cultural identity for Wessex while remaining neutral on questions of political devolution.
The boundaries of Wessex were unclear and subject to dispute. The Wessex Constitutional Convention and Wessex Society add Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire to Hardy's list; and the Wessex Regionalists, who currently use Hardy's definition of Wessex, are likely to follow suit in the near future. This definition of Wessex has been criticised from a number of quarters. For example a number of people within Devon, southern Somerset and parts of Dorset see those areas as sharing a Dumnonian Celtic identity with Cornwall, whereas some regard Hardy's definition as correct on the grounds that the counties north of the Thames, along with Berkshire and north-east Somerset, were part of Mercia for most of the Anglo-Saxon period. There are also a few in Hampshire who argue that southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were once a Jutish province in their own right and deserve to be treated differently to the rest of Wessex. The Wessex regionalist movements justify their eight-shire definition of Wessex in terms both of history and of modern regional geography, and point to the impossibility of pleasing everyone as an argument against change at the present time, though they do not rule out the possibility of change in the future if the popular will demands it.
The present South West England region
The government office region of South West England covers a different area, consisting of Hardy's Wessex less Berkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, but including Cornwall and Gloucestershire. Wessex groups are currently campaigning for boundary revisions to the regions in order to more closely match their definitions of Wessex.
Modern uses of Wessex
- 43rd (Wessex) Brigade - British Army's regional command for the South West region
- Royal Wessex Yeomanry - British Army territoral unit
- Wessex Archaeology - An educational charity and the largest UK archaeological practice.
- Wessex culture - an archaeological label used anachronistically to describe a bronze age culture whose remains are found in the Wessex area
- Wessex Trains - train operating company that use to operate in much of the South West region
- Wessex Water - water supply and sewage company that covers much of the South West region
Earl of Wessex
In an unusual move, Prince Edward was made Earl of Wessex and Viscount Severn in honour of his marriage to Sophie Rhys-Jones (styled as Countess of Wessex) in 1999. The title Earl of Wessex had not been in use for over 900 years. The last earl, King Harold, was famously killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
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